Romans 1:18 - 2:16 Commentary

Those who suppress the truth: I've come to two major disagreements I have with Paul in this passage. Neither of them blunt the thrust of Paul's message, which is that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Yet still he makes a couple of mistakes, which as an agnostic, I'm willing to see as mistakes, made by someone bound to his culture.

The first is that God's eternal power and divine nature is understood through the things He has made. The scientific process has not ruled the first out completely, but the second is untenable. God's nature is a wildly confusing thing if we are to see it from the universe. The place of chance in the development of life, the varying social and sexual behaviors of animals, even the wars of the plants - all of these do not speak of the God Paul preaches. We are children of order and of disorder - both are necessary for the universe we see before our eyes. A powerful creator cannot be ruled out, but we dare not posit the nature of this creator or just what this creator might desire from looking at the panoply of the creation. Did He who made the Lamb make Thee?

However, let us grant Paul the premise of a powerful creator. The first thing Paul condemns, idolatry, stands as well condemned, then. Looking at the world and seeing the creator reflected fully in a created thing is a conclusion worth rejecting. Paul see this as the primal confusion - exchanging the glory of the immortal God for images of created things. The rise of false religions based on this hopelessly indefensible position remains the chief cause of strife and contention in the world today. Idolators remains today, and many idols exist which are not recognized as such by their worshippers. The veneration of an icon, the pilgrimage to a holy site, even the devotion to a particular dogma above all others, all are created things that attract the human mind. If a true religion exists, it would not squabble over a plot of land, a monument to his words, or a doctrine conceived and built by humans. God is not the property of anyone, and idolatry puts God within our grasp.

Thus offended, the creator draws back from humanity and allows them free reign with their confusion, giving them up in the lust of their hearts to impurity. Paul's first illustration of this impurity marks my second disagreement with him. This is a mere illustration of his point, though, and the general point remains, which Paul catalogs in 1:28-32.

There's been a lot of ink spilled on what 1:26-27 is referring to, but after thinking through many of the options (homosexuality in general, pederasty, sex contrary to your nature (whether gay or straight)), but his circumspect language can be understood in a simple way. Paul views women exchanging a natural act for an unnatural one, while men are exchanging natural intercourse with women for unnatural intercourse with each other. The women, then, are not lesbians, but are allowing men to have anal intercourse, offering them the forbidden fruit which turns them into homosexuals. The parallels between the story of humanity's fall in Eden and this passage are too close to be ignored - especially since we are dealing with the same subject matter, the introduction of sin into the world.

Yes, Paul clearly condemns a homosexual act (letting lesbians fully and completely off the hook in the Bible), but his condemnation is based in an ignorant belief informed by culture. It's so easy to see God's divine nature in creation when your culture is pointing out the way. I'll even admit that Paul's revulsion here may be fed by a latent or closeted homosexuality, complete with a misogynistic flair. But the same Paul that prudely rejects any sexual act also wrote neither male or female. And rejection of this single part of his catalog doesn't undermine the main point to which he's driving: the greatest condemnation is for those who judge others for what they themselves are doing.

Paul wisely swings his net to include any such busybody, but he quickly moves to focus on those who might have felt some smug satisfaction at being cultural members of a group that rejected idolatry. The fruits of the primal confusion bloom within all our lives. The giving of the law (rooted so deeply on a single all-powerful God) doesn't excuse anyone. Hearing cannot save, but the doing of the law is all. Paul works out an eschatology of judgment to humble anyone before the Creator God. He even shows a way that righteous Gentiles might stand before God justified in the place of Jews who were given the law and stand condemned by it. This is not the lawkeeping Gentiles who adhered to the Jewish community, though - these Gentiles do instinctively what the law requires.

Paul's referring to people whom the Catholic Church envisions in Limbo, people like Virgil and Socrates. Paul's own background introduced him to these thinkers simultaneously with Moses and Isaiah. This philosophers, doing what the Law requires instinctively, could be excused on this day of judgment. This comeuppance of the Jewish nation would certainly have played well with government officials who could remember expelling contentious Jews over the subject of Christ in the past few years. Paul's admission of the great thinkers of the Roman culture to heaven could only have helped his cause. He trips his Jewish detractors up so neatly that the observers naturally turn a friendlier eye on him. It seems rather unfair of Paul to play on the anti-Semitism of his possible captors, but there it is. And the rest of the letter establishes the primacy of the Jewish revelation - Paul's careful never to malign the source or character of that. But it's murky ground that Paul enters here.

None of which will destroy the basic argument Paul is making - it's his cultural assumptions and legal necessities which are misusing the argument so well. But a clear understanding of the argument, I believe, exposes the misuse of it. Paul's happy to be caught in his own net, because his vindication isn't based on his own power but the power of God. When the created worships the created, the creator will judge them, and no other should presume to speak for the creator while enjoying the fruit of conflicting thought. This sin is a meta-sin - it doesn't just worship a created object as God, it sets up the judge's own self as God. This suppression of truth is a magnitude greater than those the judge judges. What hope can any person have then?